A Heartbeat Away: The Story of Presidential and Vice Presidential Succession
by Geri Zabela Eddins
Nine vice presidents have ascended to the presidency following a president’s death or resignation. Find out how presidential succession and the vice president’s influence have unfolded since Vice President John Tyler set the precedent for orderly presidential succession.
• A Vice President Chosen for Convenience Unexpectedly Rises to the Presidency
• Tyler Sets the Precedent for Presidential Succession
• The Constitution Remains Silent on Vice Presidential Succession Until 1967
• Political Scandal Rocks the Nixon Administration and Requires Action Under 25th Amendment
• Modern Vice Presidents Gain Much More Influence
• Read More
• Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Reference Sources
A Vice President Chosen for Convenience Unexpectedly Rises to the Presidency
Americans expected so little from their vice presidents in the mid-nineteenth century that newly elected Vice President John Tyler slipped away unnoticed shortly after the inauguration speeches and went home to his plantation in Williamsburg, Virginia. Just thirty-one days later, however, Tyler was sleeping soundly when Secretary of State Daniel Webster’s son Fletcher galloped into Tyler’s front yard at the crack of dawn and hammered at the front door to break the most shocking of news—President William Henry Harrison was dead. Because Tyler had been selected only as a means to help balance the ticket, he had harbored no expectations for serving actively in Harrison’s administration. Yet Tyler understood instantly the new role thrust upon him resulting from Harrison’s death, and he hurried immediately to Washington.
Tyler Sets the Precedent for Presidential Succession
Harrison’s unexpected death forced the nation to confront the death of a president for the very first time. Article II of the Constitution states that in cases of the president’s death, resignation, or disability, the “Powers and Duties of the [presidency] . . . shall devolve on the Vice President,” but many debated the meaning of “devolve” and believed that the vice president was only to serve as an “acting” president. Tyler disagreed. He believed wholeheartedly that he was to assume the presidency in all its duties and power just as if he had been elected. Tyler consulted with the Chief Justice, who concurred with his position, and so Tyler swore the oath of office immediately. His swift and decisive actions established a monumental precedent for the quick and smooth transfer of power following a president’s death that enabled subsequent orderly transitions following the deaths of seven other presidents: Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. Congress opted to suppress any lingering doubts established by Tyler’s precedent when it passed the Twenty-fifth Amendment in 1967, which states, “In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.”
Just twenty years before Congress passed the Twenty-fifth Amendment, President Harry Truman signed the Presidential Succession Act, which designates a complete line of succession in case the president dies, resigns, or becomes unable to fulfill the duties of the office. In first position to fulfill a vacant presidency, of course, is the vice president. If the vice president for some reason cannot replace the president, then those in the following offices—in this exact order—will replace the president, assuming each meets the qualifications for president established in the Constitution: Speaker of the House, President pro tempore of the Senate, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, Secretary of Labor, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary of Transportation, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Education, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and Secretary of Homeland Security.
The Constitution Remains Silent on Vice Presidential Succession Until 1967
As Tyler’s ascendency filled one vacancy, he left another vacancy in his wake—that of the vice presidency. Remarkably, the Constitution provided no means for the succession of the vice president—the job simply remained vacant. Tyler, in fact, served his entire term of 1841 through 1845 without a vice president, as did fourteen other presidents who assumed the office following a death or whose vice president resigned or died in office. When Andrew Jackson was president, his vice president John Calhoun resigned to take a seat in the Senate, which left the vice presidency vacant for a little over two months. When Abraham Lincoln died and Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency, the country was left without a vice president for almost four years. The office of the vice president continued to be perceived as insignificant for so long that vice presidential succession was not addressed by Congress until 1967. Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and a renewed sense of urgency in a world now overshadowed by the threat of nuclear war, Congress reconsidered the need to ensure speedy transitions following both a presidential and a vice presidential vacancy. With the passage of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, Congress not only laid to rest any concerns regarding presidential succession, but also granted the president the power to appoint a vice president if the office becomes vacant, subject to approval by a majority vote of both houses of Congress.
Political Scandal Rocks the Nixon Administration and Requires Action Under the 25th Amendment
Just six years after Congress passed the Twenty-fifth Amendment, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned amidst charges of bribery and income tax evasion. He was the only vice president to resign following criminal charges, and only the second to resign the office—Vice President John Calhoun resigned in 1832 to become a senator. With a legal process for vice presidential succession now in place, President Richard Nixon became the first president empowered to replace a vice president. He chose the Congressman Gerald Ford as his vice president.
In the midst of Nixon’s second term, the nation was stunned by a second wave of scandal known as Watergate. Having engaged in a series of illegal activities, ranging from political espionage to wiretapping, Nixon faced certain impeachment and chose to resign. Nixon was the first and only president ever to take such a dramatic action, and Ford—a man who had been appointed to the vice presidency—was catapulted to the presidency. Ford understood his extraordinary position as an unelected executive and humbly proclaimed to the nation, “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your president by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your president with your prayers.” Once Ford was sworn in, the vice presidency was again left vacant. For the second time in just over one year, the Twenty-fifth Amendment allowed the president to appoint a vice president. Ford chose former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Upon Rockefeller’s confirmation by Congress, our democracy became governed by two top executives who had been appointed, rather than elected by the people.
Modern Vice Presidents Gain Much More Influence
Today we often encapsulate the importance of our nation’s second highest executive in the popular aphorism that the vice president is only “a heartbeat away” from the presidency. A quick look at our history proves that the potential of the vice president to become president undoubtedly exists, necessitating a high regard for the person who holds the office. Yet, the Constitution grants precious little responsibility to the vice president. Article I designates the sole job responsibility of the vice president as serving as the President of the Senate and voting only in the case of a tie. John Adams once grumbled that his job as vice president was “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” However, the ratification of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, with its procedure for vice presidential succession, signaled the recognition of the increasing importance attributed to the job. And although Adams considered his job as vice president to be “insignificant,” modern vice presidents have actively lobbied to transform their roles into jobs with significantly more influence.
Shortly following the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976, his running mate Walter Mondale wrote a memo titled “The Role of the Vice President in the Carter Administration.” The executive pair discussed and agreed on a considerably more active role for Mondale as vice president than had ever been supported by any previous president. For the first time, the vice president’s office was moved to the West Wing of the White House, and from there Mondale actively advised the president, worked to ensure that the president was provided with as many varying perspectives as possible, and assisted in creating policy. Mondale’s ground-breaking activist role was instrumental in transforming the vice presidency. In fact, political scholar Paul C. Light writes in Vice-Presidential Power: Advice and Influence in the White House, “After two hundred years as errand-boys . . . and incidental White House commissioners, Vice Presidents can now lay claim to regular access to the President and to the opportunity to give advice on major decisions.” It is this road well paved by Mondale that Vice President Joseph Biden has followed, rather than the controversial road plowed by previous Vice President Dick Cheney, whom Biden has called the “most dangerous” vice president in American history. Biden met with Mondale during the Democratic National Convention to discuss how he served under Carter. Regarding his role as vice president, Biden noted before his first term started that he intended to serve as a close presidential advisor: “Every major decision [President Obama] will be making, I’ll be sitting in the room to give my best advice. He’s president, not me.”
- Read more about the duties, history, and stories of vice presidents at the United States Senate website at: Senate.gov.
- Read the original guidelines for succession of presidents in the U.S. Constitution, as well as the duties of the vice president at: Archives.gov.
- Read the complete text of the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which provides clearer language regarding the succession of the president and also provides for the succession of the vice president, at: Archives.gov.
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Do you believe that the vice president plays an important role in government? Do you believe that the Constitution should be amended to expand duties for the vice president beyond breaking ties in the Senate? Why or why not? What additional duties do you believe should be assigned to the vice president?
- When Congress ratified the Twenty-fifth Amendment, they did not foresee the potential for both the president and vice president to resign in the same administration. What do you think about what happened in 1973 and 1974 when both our president and vice president became appointed officials? Do you believe that Congress should rethink the process of appointing vice presidents? How do you think this should work? Would it make sense to hold a special election?
- How do you think presidential candidates should choose their running mates? Do you think presidential candidates should choose running mates with the character and qualifications necessary to serve as president?
- Do you think it would be better for Americans to elect a new president following the death, resignation, or disability of a president and let the vice president fill in as “acting” president in the interim? Why or why not?
Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
Review the list of federal officials who stand in line to assume the presidency if the president dies, resigns, or becomes incapacitated. If the vice president is unable to serve as president, then the job falls upon the Speaker of the House, followed by the President pro tempore of the Senate. Do you believe that the Speaker should be second in line, or does it make more sense for the President pro tempore of the Senate to be second in line? Why? If neither the Speaker nor the President pro tempore can serve, the succession line goes to the president’s cabinet, none of whom is elected. What do you think about that? Should Secretary of State be fourth in line to the presidency? Should another cabinet secretary be considered?
Angelo, Bonnie. First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
Boller, Paul F., Jr. Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Committee for Economic Development. Presidential Succession and Inability: A Statement of National Policy by the Research and Policy Committee of the Committee for Economic Development. New York: CED, 1965.
Durant, John and Alice. Pictorial History of American Presidents. New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1955.
Kunhardt, Philip B. Jr., Philip B. III, and Peter W. The American President: The Human Drama of Our Nation’s Highest Office. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999.
Light, Paul C. Vice-Presidential Power: Advice and Influence in the White House. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1984.
Sindler, Allan P. Unchosen Presidents: The Vice President and Other Frustrations of Presidential Succession. Berkeley: University of California, 1976.
Young, Klyde and Lamar Middleton. Heirs Apparent: The Vice Presidents of the United States. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1948.
Editor’s Note: Website links listed in angle brackets are no longer available.
“Biden seeks advisory role as U.S. vice president.” 14 November 2008.
“Biden Sees Mondale, Not Cheney as Vice-Presidential Role Model.” 14 November 2008.
“Biden Sees Vice President’s Role as ‘Adviser in Chief,’ Aides Say.” 25 November 2008.
“John Tyler.” 14 November 2008. http://millercenter.org/academic/americanpresident/tyler
“John Tyler.” 14 November 2008. http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/jt10.html
“John Tyler, Tenth Vice President (1841).” 4 December 2008.
“July 18, 1947: Presidential Succession Act.” 25 November 2008.
“Vice President of the United States (President of the Senate).” 20 November 2008.
“Walter F. Mondale. 14 November 2008.
©2016 Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance